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Cairo, Egypt

It might have been a meaningless incident, just one of those things that happen in
the city. But Reham says that those few minutes changed her life.

It happened just as Reham was leaving work at a programme called Dreams of the Girls,
in Qalyobeya, a suburb of Cairo. She teaches girls who haven’t had the opportunity to go to school how to read and write and learn marketable skills.

This project made me deal with a group of people I had only heard of, girls whose only aim in life is to eat, drink and sleep. And the feeling of being able to help them is wonderful.

Reham was born in Suez, Egypt in 1982. She is the eldest daughter among four children. Her father owns a small transport company and her mother is a public employee. Her family moved to Cairo when she was ten.

Reham doesn’t remember any major problems in her life; she always liked writing in her diary, reading, drawing, and when she was a teenager she enjoyed going to the movies and to the mall with friends, listening to music and dancing. And she always felt that, as a woman, she had the same rights as men.

But in Egypt there are still relatively few women in parliament, in the government, and as judges.

True, Egyptian women don’t have access to certain positions of power, but in daily life we are equal to men.

Her education was like that of many urban middle class girls: a secular school, television, learning the basics of Islam, though neither her mother nor her father is particularly religious. Reham would have liked to study psychology or literature at college, but her grades weren’t good enough. Of the available options, she chose social work.

In the beginning, she was not very interested. Little by little, though, she became enthralled with the idea of helping other women. Shortly after finishing her studies, she found the job in Qalyobeya. She had already been there for three years when the decisive incident happened. That afternoon Reham left work with a friend.

It was hot that day, really hot.

It was just after three in the afternoon and they were walking down a narrow street.
Reham was wearing jeans, a blouse and her usual scarf. Suddenly, a hand grabbed her from behind. Reham shouted and pushed it away, but now two hands were moving over her body. Reham kept shouting and the young man kept grabbing at her, trying to drag her away. Reham resisted until her screaming got the attention of passers-by and the boy ran off. The whole thing lasted a few seconds.

Reham fell to the ground, crying. The boy stopped at the corner and looked at her as if
he were waiting for the right moment to do it again. For days, Reham couldn’t go out for fear of new attacks.

I couldn’t walk in the street, I felt really frightened.

It is very difficult to get figures about this kind of casual sexual harassment: in big
cities, generally speaking, it is not reported, not computed, and its perpetrators often go unpunished. But in a recent survey of women in Cairo published in the Arabic magazine Nesa’a – Women – one third of the women said that they are subject to it every day.

Sexual harassment knows no bounds; women of all countries, all ages and social sectors have experienced it. Harassment can consist of touching, stalking, offensive words or flashing, and the degree of violence and aggression vary. But one thing is certain: for many women the city is a hostile place where no one and nothing defends them.

Sometimes covert harassment bursts into the open. In October 2006, at the end of Ramadan, hundreds of men pursued and harassed girls in one of Cairo’s main streets. Some of the girls were wearing trousers and T-shirts; others were wearing the long loose dress called abaya. The police did not intervene. The press didn’t report the
incidents, and the story only came to light through bloggers’ reports. Even then, some newspapers claimed that the whole thing was a lie.

Urban environments appear to offer greater anonymity to perpetrators of violence against women and girls

Reham had already experienced harassment before that afternoon in Qalyobeya. And more than once she had felt guilty.


Guilty of what?

Guilty of wearing tight clothes, of making people talk about my body. I felt bad, I didn’t feel happy about it.

Is it so aggressive to wear trousers?

I am a little big, and I just wore whatever style of clothes I liked. But some people weren’t convinced that that was the way I wanted to dress; they just thought that I was wearing this kind of clothes to provoke them. Maybe there are people who think wrong, who have problems, but I was making it worse for them with wearing tight stuff.

That was not the only reason Reham had begun, almost a year before, to think about
completely changing her image and starting to wear an abaya, in addition to the scarf she had worn for years.

In the beginning I thought of this dress as a new style of clothes. I found it cool! It was like something fashionable. But then my friends told me there is commitment to religion related to it, so I didn’t put it on immediately because I’m the kind of person who does things only when I am convinced. I thought that if later I changed back to tight blouses and trousers, it’d be a sin, so I thought it was better to wait till I was ready.

The incident in Qalyobeya probably wouldn’t have been decisive if Reham hadn’t had another fright just a month before. One afternoon during Ramadan, Reham and two others were in a tuktuk, a motorcycle taxi. The driver made a wrong move and the vehicle turned over. Though she suffered only a minor head injury, when the
tuk-tuk went out of control she thought she was going to die. She was frightened: she was, she thought, too far from God.

I discovered the most important thing: when God loves someone, He gives them many warnings to come back to Him. I could have died, I thought, and I didn’t even use to do the simplest thing for God: pray! As humans, as Muslims, we think about God all the time, but the devil gets into your head, so God gives you signs and warnings to tell you come back to Me, read the Koran, pray. That’s because a human being only starts thinking about God when there is a stressful situation. For example, when you are going to take a test, you pray. It’s just human nature: humans forget, so God, for our sake, has to put us in a situation which hurts us a little, so we come back to Him!

Reham decided to pay more attention to her religious duties. This also brought her closer to her fiancé: Reham had become engaged a few months earlier to a computer engineer. Her fiancé, though deeply devoted to his religion, didn’t demand that Reham be as observant as he; but he was pleased when he saw the changes in his future wife. So that day, when the boy attacked her on the street, Reham thought that she had been duly warned:

I still didn’t change my clothes after the first accident, I didn’t learn from it, so God sent me another warning. And then I decided to do it.

Her decision was a thorough one, and Reham is sure that there is no turning back.
Since the end of 2006, Reham has worn her scarf and abaya, which covers her entire body. She says she will keep wearing them her whole life. She is not the only one: many young Muslim women feel safer wearing traditional clothing. It is a way of putting up a double barrier between potential aggressors and their bodies: their clothing says, on the one hand, that they don’t want to engage in any sort of seduction and, on the other, that they are protected by a community and a tradition.

And you feel very different now?

Well, I am the same person. Maybe I’m not as nervous as I used to be, I think more before taking action. Maybe now I consider more what is halal and haram – allowed and forbidden in Islam – but I am really the same. Clothes won’t change you from right to left, or vice versa. They didn’t decrease my amount of freedom, my possibilities in work or hanging out, my life is just the same. Nothing has changed. I am 24, I am a normal person, I have my way of thinking, and that’s still there now that I wear this dress. People always thought I was a funny person, and I still am.

Reham faced opposition from her mother, who didn’t want her to make the change. She said it made her look older, less pretty. Reham went ahead anyway and discovered, she says, “that I have a strong personality.� And now she feels more comfortable, more relaxed. She says that since she started wearing the abaya she is harassed less on the street, and that her new religiousness has brought her much closer to her fiancé.
But her opinion is still the same about certain topics. She insists, for example, that in
Islam women are equal to men and says that personally she wouldn’t be able to tolerate it otherwise. Reham and her fiancé are getting married later this year and she is happy about it. She wants to have several children, take care of the house and her husband, and keep working to continue to make girls’ dreams come true. And she is not sorry to have left certain things behind. She no longer dances at parties, for example, because her fiancé wouldn’t like it. “It’s a matter of Eastern men’s traditions, and I agree with that,� she says.

And still, these kinds of things don’t change me at all. I’m always the same person. Or even a better person, I think, now.